Fit to be tied, again

Tie sales fell off in the casual '90s, but now neckwear is coming back.

Early in his career, Kevin McCormack always wore a tie to work. Then came the casual revolution, when, like millions of men, he reveled in the open- collar look, going "neck naked," as he puts it. But several months ago, he made a sudden change: He reverted back to ties, even though his new job does not require them.

"I just thought it would be fun to start wearing ties again," says Mr. McCormack, who works at Kaiser Permanente, a healthcare organization in Oakland, Calif.

After a decade of sartorial rebellion and confusion, neckties and - gasp! - even suits are staging a modest comeback. Some wearers are simply obeying more stringent corporate dress codes. Others, like McCormack, are enjoying a more polished look.

"The tie business went into the doldrums in the mid-1990s," says Gerald Andersen, executive director of the Men's Dress Furnishings Association. "Now there is definitely a dress-up trend among younger consumers."

In the early 1990s, retail sales of neckties peaked at $1.3 billion, he says. At the height of the casual revolution, sales dropped to about $750 million. This year, Mr. Andersen estimates that sales will climb to $1.1 billion. The upswing represents a combination of more ties being sold and at higher prices. Department store ties average $35, he says, while designer labels can cost $125 or more. Bow ties account for 3 to 5 percent of ties sold.

For younger men, wearing ties may be a counter- rebellion. "When your dad is running around in jeans and a T-shirt, you want to look different," Andersen says.

Even the sports world is sprucing up its sartorial image. A new NBA dress code requires players to wear business casual attire when they are involved in team or league business. The new policy mandates dress shirts and dress slacks or khakis.

"That's been a boon to our suit business," says David Levin, CEO of Casual Male Retail Group. "As younger guys see [players] dressing up more, that has an effect on fans. They'll be more comfortable wearing suits." And, of course, ties.

Andersen attributes some of men's growing fashion sophistication to television makeover shows, such as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" (Bravo), as well as "The Apprentice" (NBC), where "the corporate look is part of that milieu."

Ties can even spark a competitive spirit among men at work. "They see the CEO in something a little adventurous, and that opens the gate," says Michael Bragg, spokesman for Thomas Pink, a luxury retailer of ties and shirts.

Contemporary ties also give men a way to safely indulge their inner peacock. Along with conservative reds and blues, they can choose bright colors - lavender, indigo, fuchsia - and bold designs.

"For a guy, it's just about the only form of creative expression allowed to you," says Dave Platter, a marketing executive in New York.

Even wedding parties are getting adventurous. Instead of the traditional black bow tie with an evening shirt, some grooms buy ties for the wedding party in rich henna, deep purple, or aqua, says Mr. Bragg.

And it's not just wives or mothers picking out ties for men. Today, more men buy their own ties. Men now buy 75 percent of neckties sold compared with only 45 percent 10 years ago, Andersen says.

'Formal Monday' to start the week

Although Philip McGowan of Nashville "kind of hates wearing a tie," he does so every Monday. "It's my opposite of casual Friday, to get the workweek started on a serious note," he says. He also sports a tie a second day each week.

When Jason Rollins, a publicist in Atlanta, wears ties several times a week, colleagues tease him, asking, "Do you have a job interview?" Noting that executives at work all wear ties, he says, "I believe in the phrase, 'Dress like the person in the position you eventually want to be in, not the one where you are.' "

Part of the new acceptance of dressier attire revolves around convenience and comfort. With no-iron cotton dress shirts, Andersen says, "You can pull them out of the dryer and look like a million bucks."

One dress shirt features an elasticized collar that expands an inch. Next spring, Casual Male will introduce a machine-washable, tumble-dry suit. Already a pre-knotted tie with a hidden zipper accounts for one-third of its tie sales, Levin says.

Pros and cons of novelty ties

Neil Gussman wears suits and ties at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. He likes the formal atmosphere, where managers and employees who meet the public dress up. But he doesn't want to get too creative. "Kids will go out and buy polyester ties with Bob the Tomato on them," he says.

Yet novelty ties can play a humorous role. Brian Shea, a college public relations manager in Owings Mills, Md., enjoys "interesting ties that draw a comment from someone in the hall." These include Scooby-Doo and sports themes. On rainy days he might choose a tie with a beach scene. "I never thought I'd be the guy who wears goofy ties," he says.

For men who regard a strip of knotted silk as "a rope around the neck" and worry that the Fashion Police will decree ties for everyone, Andersen offers reassurance. "If you watch TV shows from the '60s, Dad walked around with a tie everywhere he went. We're not going back to those days. Men's wardrobes are becoming much more multifaceted."

McCormack sees it this way: "The casual dress style means that when you wear a tie these days, it's because you want to, not because you have to. It's ironic that something that used to be a symbol of conformity can now be a symbol of individuality."

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